Davis Bakery and the Cleveland Renaissance
A neighborhood institution grows into its fifth decade on the city’s east side
“When I see your mom come in, I already know: three quarters of a pound of turkey,” vice president Jay Davis tells me. It wasn’t the answer to my question of what exactly — besides their perennial stock of Matzo ball soup, rye bread, kichel, and corned beef — makes Davis Bakery & Delicatessen feel so Jewish, but it might as well have been. On the corner of Chagrin Road and an everyday suburban side street, the small Ashkenazi haven has been serving regulars of Cleveland’s east side from its Woodmere storefront since 1981, and if I know anything about Jews, it’s that we love consistency, and that we love Davis Bakery rye bread.
Jay, age 33, has been working (at least officially) at Davis Bakery since he was fourteen—the third generation of Davis to join the family business. A large grin spreads across his face when recalling the placement of cherries on top of butter cookies at just the age of four. He laughs when reminiscing on his training as a baker as a teenager, under the stalwart Davis baker Durham “Bodi” Reeves, who, in his sixty-year tenure, memorized all the recipes in the binder. Now as vice president, he “wears a lot of hats”: any given day, he might be doing sales calls to local hotels and grocery stores, balancing the deli’s books, interacting with customers, or even fixing up a faulty oven when it’s within his skill set.
To those who know Jay and his family, and the staff such as Priscilla behind the bakery counter and butchers Joe and John, the best part about Davis Bakery is the physical and metaphorical warmth of the place: the way the front glass door swings open to the savory smell of both Jewish and classic pastries; the way Joe or John makes your “usual” sandwich upon seeing your face; the way that regulars of all races — not just old Jewish women crooning, “A quarter pound of lox, skip the first three layers” — nestle into the small storefront crammed with Cleveland Cavaliers paraphernalia, freshly-baked Challah bread and gefilte fish, eager to get their fix of Davis Bakery and thaw themselves out in this sanctuary from the often dreary Cleveland winter.
Davis Bakery has been a mainstay of the Cleveland suburban scene since its flagship store opened in Cleveland Heights in 1939, under the ownership of Jay’s grandfather and great-uncles Carl, Julius, and Ben Davis. In interviews, the family loves to tell the story of how they came to own their industrial mixer. In the classic work-hard-and-be-humble spirit, anticipating LeBron James’s “Everything is earned in Northeastern Ohio” punchline before LBJ was even born, the three brothers bought a coin-operating mixer from Hobart on credit, then used the small change collected from the mixer to pay it off. In 1961, the brothers took over two bakery chains, Smayda Bakery and Lakewood Bakery, on the east and west sides of Cleveland respectively, and pushed their business to its peak of 39 stores and kiosks and nearly 450 workers. Davis Bakery’s dominance in the Cleveland scene came as a surprise to no one; the Davis family is known throughout Cleveland for both their irresistible chocolate rugelach (of which Jay always insists there are a few extra set aside for himself) and for a perseverance that’s both Jewish and Midwestern.
With the rise of one-stop shop grocery stores, though, the Davis Bakery “empire” has, over the years, been whittled down to just two larger stores: a production center in Warrensville with a small storefront, and the popular location in Woodmere. When asked if his family is nostalgic for the days when Davis Bakery was a common name on the east and west sides of Cleveland, Jay replies in his practical way, his gaze meeting mine and reminding me just slightly of my father, my uncle, my brother, my grandfather — Jewish men who offer up a certain ‘real world’ wisdom. The business simply changed, he tells me, so Davis Bakery changed too. Its shrinking presence to the east side of Cleveland — the more Jewish side of the Cuyahoga River, which cuts unevenly down the center of the city dividing east from west — has not stopped the Davis family from baking their rugelach, or from serving their turkey on rye.
Interestingly enough, Woodmere, now Davis Bakery’s main retail location, is not a particularly Jewish place. Within its tiny population of around 900, about 70% of its residents are Black and 29% white; most Jews reside in the neighborhoods surrounding it. Sitting with Jay in the new dining section — a section just opened this year, and adorned with Davis Bakery black-and-white memorabilia—I am just as likely to see a middle-aged Black woman as I am an elderly Jewish man named Morris or Milt. According to Jay, only about 40% of their consumers are actually Jewish, a truth often gleaned by their choice of food (no one not Jewish is really apt to buy gefilte), and even more so from their pronunciation of “challah” bread (with the “ch” phrased as a hard American chirp rather than the guttural Hebrew phlegm-filled huff). Jay is surprised when I ask if this has any effect on the atmosphere. I don’t explain to him how in recent years, I have watched Jewish and Black activism in universities switch to opposite ends of the paradigm, in part because many Black student organizations insist upon an interrelation between the Black Lives Matter movement and Students for Justice in Palestine, ultimately creating a conundrum for Jewish students wanting to advocate both for civil rights and for the determination of a state for the Jewish people. Pro-Israel student organizations are often cut out of conversations within the Black movement, simply for their commitment to being pro-Israel.
Davis Bakery though, seems untouched by this dichotomy, and in a broader sense, the harsh striation between Black and white in the Greater Cleveland Area. According to a 2010 census, while over 80% of Ohio is white, around 50% of Ohio’s most northern city is Black. It came as no great surprise when, in 2014, Cleveland was ranked by the Wall Street Journal as one of the top five most segregated cities. Although the city itself and the surrounding suburbs are two completely different beasts, the sentiments of any major city has a way of permeating outwards. With suburban areas closest to the city on the east side, such as Cleveland Heights and Shaker Heights, maintaining a large black community of 42% and 34%, respectively, issues of race are not confined to downtown. The shooting and killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice — a Black boy, by a white police officer — happened in the city of Cleveland, but I too could count on my fingers the amount of Black women in my grade at my elite, all-girls preparatory school on the east side. Black-and-white (with an emphasis on the space in between) cannot just be relegated to the photos on the wall of Davis, or the past in the city of Cleveland.
But the community remains hopeful. The recent success of the Cleveland sports teams — the Cleveland Cavaliers clinching the 2016 NBA Championship, the Cleveland Indians making it to the World Series (and losing it, just barely in extra innings to the Chicago Cubs)– has revitalized a city that still struggles under its gross misnomer, “The Mistake on the Lake.”
“People still see Cleveland as a dreadful, industrial, shithole — pardon my language,” Jay says to me.
He’s excited for what he calls “The Cleveland Renaissance,” the much anticipated rebirth of the city. Although Davis Bakery seems to have its heyday back in the 60s and 70s, Jay assures me that through hard work and persistence, the business is doing better than ever.
Starting around the age of four or five, Carol Davis would sneak me and my siblings free chocolate chip cookies. Once, on a very good day, I remember someone even letting us go behind the counter to pick “any treated we wanted.” I chose the a “radio bar,” a massive chocolate brownie with cream inside and a sweet chocolate frosting. Then there was the turkey-on-rye-on-Saturday phase, a much beloved father-daughter tradition consisting of my father picking me up from pottery classes at the local art center, always with a Davis Bakery turkey sandwich — complete with pickles and once again, a chocolate-chip cookie — in hand. There was a time in which my parents would buy me Davis chocolate cupcakes and I would lick the frosting right of the top in several wide-tongued scoops before giving the rest to my mom. Always, there has been the essential Davis stop before sports games (I munched on a tuna-on-rye at this year’s Ohio State vs. Michigan), and one can never forget the time that the butcher Joe hastily drove around the corner to our home to warn us that he thought he may have accidentally sold us expired tuna salad.
My go-to order these days is tuna-on-rye, with lettuce and tomato, pickle and cookie on side. My dad prefers a basic turkey-lettuce-mayo-on-rye, my brother the same, and my sister too except for the addition of gluten-free bread. My cousin Jonathan, who moved to Boston over ten years ago, still insists on turkey-lettuce-pickles-Muenster-cheese-on-Challah — hold the muenster now, as he is vaguely lactose-intolerant like the rest of my family — whenever he comes to town. His brother, Daniel, notes that he too follows the Adler archetype of turkey-on-rye, except that in his fat days he would get mayo instead of mustard. Every single Friday, my mother picks up a Challah bread for Shabbat dinner. If I go in to pick it up for her, all I have to say is, “I’m here for Hedy.” They recognize me, and grab a freshly-baked Challah they have put off to the side for us.
When I tell people I am from Cleveland, they (especially those from Los Angeles), say, “Oh, I’m sorry.” But what is there to be sorry about? In the last few years, I have watched my city grow, watched hard work and respect combine with radical hope and creative thinking, watched as a city — with a river that once burned from pollution — burn again, but this time with passion, dedication, and success. Although there are setbacks, Cleveland moves forward. Returning home to Cleveland is like biting into a long-time favorite sandwich: a familiar and comfortable treat, a sudden transport back into time — but simultaneously a reminder of how things were different the last time you tasted it, and how they will most likely be different the next time too.